Though less popular today, white potato pies still grace Maryland tables for special events and holidays. (Joyce M. White / OutLook by the Bay)

Move over sweet potato pie. It’s time to shine the spotlight on another iconic pie, the Eastern Shore white potato pie. While sweet potato pie is a well-known American culinary delight, particularly within African American soul food traditions, similar pies made with mashed white potatoes are much less familiar to most Americans. But to those in the know, the mixture of potatoes, milk/cream, eggs, loads of sugar, lemon or vanilla flavorings, and sweet spices such as nutmeg baked in a tender pastry shell is a gastronomic pleasure. While origins of food traditions are often impossible to trace, these pies tend to be linked to Maryland, especially its Eastern Shore. Ruth Gaskins, a notable soul food cookbook author observed in 1968 that Maryland’s Eastern Shore was unusual for its use of “white potatoes instead of sweet potatoes in pies.” Though less popular today, these pies still grace Maryland tables for special events and holidays, and recipes for them still appear in Maryland community fundraising and church cookbooks, representing an accretion of Native American, African American, and European American traditions.

Though similar in form and name, sweet and white potatoes are unrelated root vegetables that originated thousands of years ago in South America. Both types of potatoes were introduced to Europeans in the sixteenth century, but the sweet potato was eagerly accepted by Europeans while white potatoes were spurned, considered to be fit only for the poor or animals. The Irish, however, saw the benefits of growing such an easy-to-grow, hardy, nutritious and filling crop long before other Europeans and as a result they were often referred to as Irish potatoes. Attitudes changed in the late eighteenth century in England when food shortages propelled the British government to encourage its people to add white potatoes to their diets to avoid starvation. In the 1780s, the French Court fell in love with white potatoes (called pommes de terre in French) and legend has it that King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette adorned their bodies with potato blossoms to express this adoration. Once these royals adopted them into their diet, they were guaranteed to be adopted by all, particularly Thomas Jefferson who was a frequent guest of the French Court in those days. Rumors abound that Jefferson’s enslaved chef James Hemings learned how to cook potatoes while studying the culinary arts in Paris. Hemings likely prepared them in deep-fried rounds or slices. His recipe may be the inspiration for a recipe called To fry sliced potatoes published in “The Virginia Housewife,” the cookbook from about 1824 written by Thomas Jefferson’s cousin, Mary Randolph. 

By the 19th century, recipes specifically for sweet custard pies made with white potatoes started to appear in American cookery books, particularly those produced in the Chesapeake region. “The Virginia Housewife” contains a recipe called Sweet Potato Pudding in which Randolph states that the recipe can also be made with white potatoes. By the late nineteenth century this sweet treat was a fixture in the Chesapeake and was served regularly throughout the year. They were so popular that a category was devoted to them at agricultural fairs held in Maryland and surrounding states during the decades surrounding the turn of the twentieth century, a pie worthy of blue-ribbon status. Nowadays, these pies are generally only in demand at Thanksgiving, Christmas, or other holidays when hearty, homestyle, nostalgic fare is desired, and these delicious pies certainly fit the bill. Revive or develop a penchant for the taste of the Eastern Shore’s past by adding this recipe to your baking routine for holidays or any days.

Eastern Shore white potato pie

Yield: 2 pies

This recipe redaction is based on several found in cookbooks published by organizations located on Maryland’s Eastern Shore 

Ingredients:

1½ pounds russet potatoes 3 large eggs

Pastry for 2 (single crust) pies 1 cup whole milk

4 ounces (1 stick) butter, melted 1 teaspoon grated nutmeg

1 cup + 2 tablespoons sugar 1½ teaspoon lemon extract

(or fresh lemon zest and juice, to taste)

Directions:

Pierce potatoes with a fork to release steam while cooking and microwave or bake the until soft. Cool potatoes until they can be handled. Heat oven to 375 F. Line two pie dishes with pastry and place on baking sheets covered with parchment paper. Peel skins off the cooled potatoes and mash with the butter in a large mixing bowl. Then run through a food mill or ricer to remove all lumps.  Add remaining ingredients to potato mixture and whisk together until well blended. Divide the mixture evenly between prepared pie dishes. Bake for 45-55 minutes, or until the pudding puffs up and does not jiggle when shaken. Cool and serve.

Joyce, a food historian, can be contacted through www.atasteofhistory.net.

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